My latest composition takes climate change research in Antarctica for its theme. The continent is important to scientists for its pivotal role in the Earth’s climate system and
its sensitivity to environmental change. By collecting and merging diverse forms of data
from the Ice, they hope to better understand global warming and predict future
One of the indicators that scientists monitor is the Antarctic ozone hole in the stratosphere, represented by the semicircle at the top of my image. Diminished ozone concentrations are caused by man-made chlorine-containing source gases — primarily CFCs and related halocarbons — which in turn affect weather in the troposphere.
I pictured that as a comet-like gust of wind because ozone depletion combined with increased greenhouse gases and internal climate variability are known to have strengthened Antarctica’s winds. On the positive side, environmental regulation has
been shown to play a successful role in containing the ozone hole and its effects in
Scientists also draw information from studying and comparing locales on the ground. I’ve represented two of these areas in my piece.
One is the McMurdo Dry Valleys, indicated by the ‘ice drill’ at lower right. This region’s sensitive ecosystem is monitored for its rapid response to small variations in solar radiation and temperature driven by human activity. Past climate change is studied by analyzing trapped air bubbles in ancient ice, obtained by extracting ice cores from Dry Valleys glaciers.
Another important area is the great Western Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS), depicted in
the left half of my piece. Researchers are collecting WAIS ice cores to measure historic greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide, methane) levels in up to 100,000 years of snowfall. The chemical makeup of the ice itself functions as a thermometer, revealing the atmospheric temperature when the snow fell. Research suggests that WAIS may be inherently unstable and that it likely collapsed in the distant past when Earth was a few degrees warmer than today.
Which leads to the issue of sea level rise. I’ve marked my projected water level at 15 inches in deference to the International Panel on Climate Change‘s estimate of a global average rise between 0.6 and 2 feet in the next century. While there’s no question that sea levels are rising, researchers also remind us that climate prediction remains an inexact science. In Antarctica, where temperatures have soared along the peninsula in the last several decades but have changed little over East Antarctica (thanks in part, ironically, to the ozone hole-induced winds), projecting the future has proven even more difficult. In fact just last year scientists were forced to retract a major paper on rising sea levels due to errors that undermined the study’s conclusion. That report suggested that sea levels could rise to a whopping 82cm (32.28 inches) by the end of the century.
Given the number of evolving climatic factors, researchers now generally agree to uncertainty about how much warming will occur in Antarctica. One thing for certain however is that WAIS will be monitored ever more closely, considering the amount of water stored in the continent’s ice sheets.
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On a CalAcademy-related note: I’m currently creating a large, unique Earth Day-themed installation in the museum’s central Piazza space. The project is titled “Handle With Care” and is described on my site and on the CalAcademy’s programs page and in my artist’s statement. You’re invited to come on by, say hi, and see the piece in progress till April 20 and in completed form thereafter.